When it comes to tourism, never underestimate the importance of a restroom.
Public facilities with innovative designs can be a visitor attraction in themselves, as noted by the annual International Toilet Tourism Awards. The awards by MyTravelResearch.com were created "to show the close link between innovative, clean toilets with great design and a successful local tourism economy — or as we like to call it the trickle down effect."
For example, a public restroom in Lucas, Kan., called Toilet Bowl Plaza, is noted as a big visitor draw. The building itself was designed in the shape of a toilet, and the inside is covered with mosaics and quirky creations by local artists.
The public restrooms at the welcome centers along the major arteries leading into South Carolina have been a prime focus lately of state tourism officials. The nine official welcome centers play a key role in the state's economic development, according to Duane Parrish, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
"Over 80 percent of visitors to South Carolina come by car," Parrish said. "First impressions mean everything."
Eight welcome centers ring the Palmetto State, capturing visitors coming from every direction. The other one is near the middle.
When Parrish took over PRT seven years ago, he said, the welcome centers were pretty shoddy and unimpressive — restrooms, vending machines, a small space to pick up some brochures or ask a question.
They were only open five days a week, closed Mondays and Tuesdays to save money.
The Department of Transportation turned over maintenance to PRT in July 2014. The tourism agency got about $4.5 million from DOT to maintain the centers this year, according to DOT's budget report.
The restrooms were cleaned up, landscaping and flowers added. That was just the beginning.
There are no plans to make the restrooms worthy of a Toilet Award, but the centers themselves are being overhauled. Two have been completely rebuilt in the last two years, costing about $4.5 million each.
One is at Hardeeville on Interstate 95 just north of the South Carolina-Georgia state line, replacing a center that opened in 1978.
The other is at Fort Mill on I-77 south of the North Carolina border, replacing one that opened in 1981.
Construction on a new Dillon welcome center in the Pee Dee region, on I-95 just south of the North Carolina border, is set to start later this year. The current Dillon center opened in 1973.
The newer centers are more spacious and modern than their predecessors. Rather than just racks of brochures advertising the state's attractions, high-definition screens on the walls stream live webcams from around the state. The exteriors are designed to reflect the local culture. For instance, the new Dillon center looks like a farm house typical of the rural, tobacco areas of the Pee Dee.
Parrish said the goal is not only to let travelers know about the state's attractions but to give them the impression that South Carolina is on the cutting edge.
"It's not only important for tourism but also for economic development," he said. "We don't want them to look dated."
About 3.5 million visitors a year step inside the welcome centers, according to PRT. The agency spends about $1.5 million a year to staff them with trained travel counselors versed in South Carolina history and culture.
The counselors welcome visitors, answer questions, give out coupons and occasionally make reservations. The department says its counselors made about $2 million in hotel reservations last year, even though the centers are equipped with wireless Internet service so travelers can do it themselves over their phones.
“It’s a chance for us to have that personal touch," Parrish said. "No matter how great technology gets, nothing will ever replace the 'human touch.'"
Businesses that cater to tourists can put their brochures in the center for free. PRT reports about $88,000 a year from selling spaces for bigger ads.
For instance, the Santee welcome center — the one near the center of the state on I-95 south, near I-26 — is the closest to Charleston, and also one of the smallest. The town of Mount Pleasant has a poster on the glass front door. It says, "Where Rush Hour is a pleasant surprise, but still leaves you speechless." There's a photo of some dolphins a driver might see while crawling over the Ravenel Bridge or Shem Creek.
Around the corner, on the path leading to the women's restroom, Drayton Hall advertises its new visitors center. Inside, a wall panel advertising North Charleston has a photo of the boardwalk at Riverfront Park with the slogan “always take the scenic route.”
The tourism department doesn't get any money from the vending machines. Those are reserved for entrepreneurs through the S.C. Commission for the Blind's Business Enterprise program, which includes hiring drivers for those who can't see well enough to drive. The policy is a federal mandate under the Randolph-Sheppard Act.
It would seem the state could make some extra money selling T-shirts or other souvenirs, but that's not allowed along interstate highways under the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act.